Many of you know that my 16-year old daughter, Caitie, has been through a lot. She has suffered from Epilepsy her whole life and has become an advocate for her disorder in the last two years. Worldwide Epilepsy affects over 65 million people and it has a pretty significant stigma associated with it. So for Caitie to stand up and say, “You know what, I have Epilepsy and I’m pretty normal” was an amazing thing to do. I don’t think I would have had that much courage when I was a teenager.
But what carries an even greater stigma (and affects more people worldwide) is mental health. It’s crazy that we are so judgmental about mental health issues when 20% of Canadian will suffer some kind of mental illness in their lifetime but even talking about mental health makes many of us uncomfortable. And yet mental health is part of each of us – we all have to take care of our physical, spiritual and mental health. It’s part of being a human being.
Caitie suffers from Anxiety. Many people with Epilepsy also suffer from Anxiety to some degree. If you didn’t know when or if you were going to have your next seizure, it makes sense that you might get anxious about it. But if you have never suffered serious Anxiety it can be a very difficult thing to deal with. I have never experienced Anxiety on a personal level. And the thing is, when you don’t experience it yourself, it doesn’t make sense. Because Anxiety is not at all logical. You can’t talk the person out of being anxious.
And we aren’t talking about just a few butterflies in your stomach. We are talking about the inability to take part in daily activities. When Caitie has an anxiety attack, it literally immobilizes her.
I have to admit, I’m not so great at dealing with these episodes. I’m much better at dealing with her seizures. In fact, the person who helps Caitie most when she’s having an anxiety attack is her 13-year old brother. He just has a way of calming her down, without losing his cool (which is easy to do when you are dealing with someone who is having a serious anxiety attack because what seems logical in the normal circumstance, doesn’t apply).
One might be surprised to hear that Caitie suffers from Anxiety because she’s pretty calm when it comes to things that make most people anxious. One would think that standing on the We Day stage in front of more that 20,000 youth or giving a TedXKids talk in front of hundreds (thousands if you count the livestream and YouTube views) would trigger an attack but it doesn’t work like that for Caitie. What really triggers her anxiety are social situations. She’s never been to a high school party or dance – she’s wanted to go, she’s even said she would go, but every time she has suffered an anxiety attack that has made it impossible for her to leave the house. It seems illogical.
Last month Caitie went to Ottawa to take part in the HEADSTRONG (Youth Anti-Stigma) National Summit sponsored by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. That week was transformational for her. She has come home full of stories and hope. And she has started to write constantly (not just about mental health issues but about everything). During that week she took part in a poetry slam workshop and she has discovered a new passion. I’m amazed to see her stand up and share her thoughts on everything from whales in captivity to Epilepsy to Anxiety to being a teenager in today’s society.
One of Caitie’s poems has been entered in AnxietyBC’s 2014 Contest. It is about her experience of Anxiety. I encourage you to go to the site and read it (and the other entries). Caitie’s poem starts: “1, 2, 3, 4 As the light cuts through my blinds and onto my face, the quietest corners of the morning welcome my pulse 1, 2, 3, 4 The light in my room flickers on A reminder of the day that I’d been dreading the day before”. You can read the entries here: http://anxietybccontest.hscampaigns.com/ and vote for them by clicking on the little heart that pops up on each entry when you click on it.
This past week has been a bit of a rollercoaster for Caitie. She had her first few seizures after being seizure free for almost 4 months. She had hoped that her neurologist would allow her to get her driver’s license in the spring but now it looks like she’ll have to wait a bit longer (the law in BC is that you have to be seizure free for 6 months to get your license). I’m glad that through all the ups and downs she’s found a way to express her feelings through her poetry. Writing is, indeed, a powerful thing.